On the Trail

A Lesson in Great Wine

David Driscoll

I left my camera equipment in the hotel room after a long day of tasting in the Mèdoc, looking forward to a few relaxing hours at the dinner table with friends and colleagues. Little did I know, however, that we were in for the tasting experience of a lifetime and I would be stuck without the proper lens to document the occasion. But that’s what iPhones are for, right? For the moments in life when you should probably be concentrating on the here and now, but still can’t properly fight the urge to memorex the memory. We were having dinner with Château Latour head Frédéric Engerer at a small bistro in downtown Bordeaux called La Tupina—a closet-sized space that specializes in classic French cuisine and meat dishes in particular. From the moment we walked in the staff was preparing the viande du jour right at the front counter. "Damn it," I whispered to myself. I whipped out my phone and started snapping pictures of the colorful countertop. I hate it when I'm not prepared.

Speaking of being unprepared, Clyde had mentioned that Frédéric would likely be bringing some wines from the château, maybe an older vintage of Latour and some of the Les Forts de Latour. That sounded amazing. What he had failed to mention until we arrived, however, was that Frédéric liked to pour his wines in flights—and blind. When the esteemed Latour director showed up with his wife he was carrying a six-pack crate of magnums, all wrapped in paper as to not reveal the vintage on the label. We all shook hands and said our hellos, but then Frédéric got down to business. "I'm going to pour you six vintages of Latour," he said to us. "All from magnum and all blind. We will do three flights of two. You will have to guess the vintage of each one. Are you ready?" Clyde had a huge grin on his face. He was as giddy as a schoolboy with his notes out in front of him, already trying to use human psychology as a way to gain any kind of advantage. Alex, always eager to compete with Clyde, was just as pumped. I had no intention of doing anything but learning. What did I know about historic vintages from one of the greatest wine cellars in the world? The first two glasses were poured. I looked at the colors: a dark reddish hue. I took a whiff; both smelled fresh and full of life.

While the others contemplated and swirled, I sat there quietly taking in the scene. Frédéric looked over at me and asked: "What do you think, David?" I laughed and simply said I was out of my league here. Frédéric smiled and asked why that was the case. "There are two very important factors that are in play here," I answered, "both of which I know are going to throw me for a loop. Number one: we're tasting Latour, one of the most age-worthy wines in the world. Whereas a typical ten dollar Bordeaux will show its age after five or more years in the bottle, I know wines like Latour can mature for decades before showing their maturity and I have absolutely no experience tasting them." Frédéric nodded and agreed. "Number two," I added, "we're tasting from magnums, which means the wine will age even more slowly. This wine could be thirty years old, but to me it looks and smells quite young." Everyone at the table guessed late seventies and early-to-mid eighties. I guessed some time in the 1990s. As it turned out, the wines were from 1973 and 1977: two years that were not particularly successful in Bordeaux. Frédéric had opened two bottles from two lesser vintages and most of us were at least a decade off in our assumptions. How could wines this old taste so full of life?

"That's the difference between the great wines of Bordeaux and everything else," Ralph said to me, taking a bite from his delicious cassoulet; "these wines can live forever." I sat there shaking my head, carving into my perfectly crispy skin of aile confit and realizing that everything I thought I knew about wine had just been destroyed. I knew that great vintages could age forever, but I never expected that wines from two off years like 1973 and 1977 could ever taste like that. Frédéric gathered our glasses and poured the second flight. This time around we were all much more cautious. Pross guessed 1985 on the second wine and nailed it. Clyde thought the first wine was pruney on the nose and therefore came from a warm vintage. He was the second closest of all with his guesses (because he's a master), but all of us were much more in line with reality this time around. He guessed 1987 and 1991, but the wines turned out to be from 1991 and 1985. "1991 was a frost vintage, Clyde said. "It's not a great vintage, but I've always loved the Latour from that year. That's why I guessed it for the second wine, but that actually was a good year." Frédéric smiled as we all patted ourselves on the back. Little did we know he was setting us up for complete failure.

Frédéric came around with the final flight; two primary colored wines that were obviously chosen to be as deceptive as possible. Alex took a whiff, then leaned into me and said: “These are two top vintages, you can tell.” I swirled and smelled. Wow. Just wow. It was absolutely seamless and delicious. Ralph swooned next to me. Phil sat there awestruck. The nose on the first wine was concentrated and full of fruit. My first thought was 2001. This wine couldn't have been much older than fifteen years just based on the aesthetics. It was barely bricking out at the rim whatsoever, but I knew better now from experience with the first two flights. I guessed 1982: one of the greatest vintages of all time. Alex thought it was from the great 95 vintage, but Clyde guessed 1975: a full twenty years older! Ralph couldn't make up his mind, but in the end all of us thought back on the best harvests over the last few decades and fired out memorable dates from Bordeaux's well-versed almanac of greatest hits. The answer? 1967: one of the worst vintages of the last decade. The other was a 1971; not exactly a memorable year either. We weren't even close. 

I was so dumfounded at this point that I didn't know what else to do but keep tasting repeatedly, still looking for signs of wear and tear or some sort of loose seam that would reveal something tangible. In the end, however, the proof was sitting right there in front of me. The great wines of Bordeaux—specifically first-growth wines like Latour—are great for a reason; they're almost indestructible. The irony, however, is that in today's market where consumers are obsessed with iconic numbers and scores, most serious collectors wouldn't go near most of these bottles. Yet even in vintages that were considered less than stellar, and even downright bad in some cases, the wines of Château Latour still evolved into something utterly beautiful and ethereal. There's a reason these wines are expensive year in and year out and its a testament to the property and its incredible growing conditions. As we drove home in the car that night Ralph said to me, “The ’67 out of magnum was the most surprising wine of my career. It was a terrible vintage and it tasted like a great vintage. I’m still shaking my head about it, but it shows the greatness of Latour and their incredible terroir.

And it also goes to show that even when you think you understand wine—which bottles to drink and which to avoid, which to cellar and which to open now—you may not know as much as you think you do. And that was the lesson that Frédéric wanted to convey that evening; that when tasted blind even the worst vintages of a wine like Latour can stand toe-to-toe with some of the best vintages from producers elsewhere. I sat down tonight with a table full of incredibly experienced wine professionals and watched everyone get completely fooled. 

"Isn't it great how wine can still surprise you, even after almost forty years of working in this business?" I asked Ralph in response. He just smiled and nodded. We were over the moon the whole way back to the hotel.

(And, just like you're probably doing now, I'm going to start perusing our auction site for older, off-vintages of Latour in search of a deal. I'm sure there are many folks out there who have no idea what they're missing). 

-David Driscoll